Cooke, Moore Offer Crisis Communications Advice to Pastors at Proclaim 16

Phil Cooke and Johnnie MooreNASHVILLE, TN – When a pastor has an affair, a staff member embezzles money, or a disgruntled church member launches a critical social media campaign, churches must already be prepared with a plan to handle public perception, two experts told church leaders at Proclaim 16, the NRB International Christian Media Convention, Nashville, TN.

Phil Cooke, Co-founder and CEO of Cooke Pictures, and Johnnie Moore, Founder and President of KAIROS Company, led a session at the Pastors Track on what to do when a crisis happens and reporters come knocking.

“When the crisis comes, it’s too late to figure out what to do,” Moore said, admonishing pastors to think proactively about reputation management.

One of the prime mistakes church leaders make when a crisis comes, Moore said, is to respond with “no comment,” which signals guilt to a watching world.

“In 90 percent of circumstances, you should never say ‘no comment,’” Moore said. “In fact, you probably shouldn’t be talking at all. You probably should have a professional talking on your behalf.”

Moore advised pastors to respond quickly, transparently, and clearly but not to tell everything. “People say too much or they say too little,” Moore said. “The withholding of information is important, but if you withhold too much you set yourself up for trouble.”

Another mistake people make, Moore said, is to let their legal counsel set the message. “There’s a big difference between having a legal review to assess your risk and letting your lawyer determine what to say,” Moore said. “Lawyers don’t think about public opinion. ... Good PR counsel works hand in hand with lawyers.”

Cooke emphasized having a crisis plan ahead of time. “Get your leadership team together and talk about what you will do if something like this happens,” Cooke said. “Who’s going to be the spokesperson? ... Research shows that organizations that have a plan recover far more quickly and far better than organizations that don’t.”

Check the church’s liability coverage, Cooke advised. “Make sure you are covered if you are sued.” Also, when a crisis happens, do not cover it up.

“In a digital, Google world, you can’t hide it,” Cooke said. “You absolutely cannot hide anymore. In fact, I don’t look at Google as a search engine so much. I look at Google as reputation management. Google your church occasionally. Google your name occasionally. See what comes up.”

Cooke mentioned what he called “church trolls,” who will start rumors online and get a following, and the pastor can become so obsessed with the negative commentary that he is distracted from ministry.

“Take it offline,” Cooke said, advising pastors to respond to such people privately.

Moore noted that social media has transformed church gossip. “People have been complaining about your ministry forever, but now you see it.”

When speaking with reporters, pastors tend to make mistakes in two extremes, said Moore. “You trust them too much or you think all of them are after you. Never trust a reporter, but please don’t think they’re after you. They have a job to do.”

A good proactive plan, Cooke said, includes reaching out to local reporters before a crisis comes. “Don’t be hostile,” he said. Instead, a pastor could invite the reporter to lunch and explain that he would like to be available for comment whenever a faith-related story comes up. By developing a positive relationship with a reporter, a church leader is in a better position to handle potential conflict.

Among other pointers Cooke and Moore gave pastors in the February 24 session:

  • Don’t speak in “Christianese” to reporters. Talk plainly in terms that everyone can understand.
  • Get reporters to write good news about your church. When something positive happens, let them know. The more good news stories a church has accumulated, the less hard-hitting a bad one can be.
  • Don’t allow a reporter on church property unsupervised.
  • Often the leader of the organization isn’t the best spokesperson. A pastor, for instance, may take the crisis personally, whereas a staff member may respond in an articulate, calm manner.
  • Don’t be afraid to engage critics, but also don’t be afraid to block people on social media.
  • Don’t exercise church discipline online.

By Erin Roach

Published: February 29, 2016

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